Early STEM – Fuel for Learning

October 6, 2015

José, a preschooler in Mrs. Hardy’s classroom, had never talked in class. He was a dual language learner (DLL), and it was already December. His teacher was participating in our SciMath-DLL professional development project where she had been learning about how to incorporate moScreen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.23 AMre science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) into her classroom and how to engage DLLs in these activities. One day, she set out ramps and cars and let the kids play with them. Then she asked the children if they knew how they might make the cars go down the ramps more quickly? “Blocks!” said José, as he ran to the block center to get blocks to prop up his ramp. His classmate, Molly, looked shocked and said, ‘He talked!” This child’s teacher was amazed at how rich (although relatively simple) STEM materials provided the fodder needed to encourage José to express himself out loud.

Children are natural scientists and are curious about their world. Even infants have an innate sense of quantity that is the foundation for more complex mathematics, such as counting and geometry (e.g., Hespos et al., 2012). Young children–including my 19-month-old–love to throw or drop objects down the stairs to observe what will happen . . . over and over again. Although not fully verbalized, they are conducting trials to test out a hypothesis about gravity and the physics of movement based on prior experience!

SciMath-DLL is a professional development model that aims to embrace these natural predispositions, to help teachers find the STEM in what children are already doing, and to design their own intentional learning experiences for their children. SciMath-DLL seeks to improve the quality of early STEM teaching and learning for all children, including DLLs. This is important. Recent research that has found that how children do in math and science by the end of preschool predicts how well they will do in these subjects later–even into adolescence (Duncan et al., 2007; Watts et al., 2014; Grissmer et al, 2010)! And early math skills predict later reading skills too–even better than early reading skills predict later reading. Unfortunately, many children and especially children who live in low-resource communities or who are DLLs, start preschool behind their peers in key domains and stay behind without intervention (Barnett, 2008; Denton & West, 2002).Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.50 AM

The challenge is that many early childhood educators do not have the confidence or background knowledge to teach STEM effectively (Greenfield et al., 2009) or to work with DLLs (Freedson, 2010). Many educators did not participate in many–or any–STEM courses in their pre-service preparation programs (Zaslow et al., 2010). Our model aims to address this issue by using key STEM concepts as focal points at in-service interactive workshops, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and individual Reflective Coaching Cycles (RCCs). We weave throughout all components our approach to teaching STEM to young children. For example, we encourage educators to look for the STEM in every day activities (e.g., figuring out how many orange slices are needed at snack time so every child gets one), to thoughtfully expand the language strategies they use with children (e.g., “Emmanuel said he thinks the metal ball will sink in water. Emmanuel, why do you think that?”), to incorporate literature into STEM activities (fiction and nonfiction), and to “think outside the kit” when gathering materials to explore (e.g., using found or recycled materials to explore sorting).

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.30 AMOne teacher who was working with us–Ms. Anabela–who had done a length measurement lesson with her kids using worksheets and different types of units, reflected on her lesson: “My first lesson was a complete disaster because I had too much going on . . . After we talked about it, and I was like duh. The objective was there; the idea was there; the whole mapping it out, though, was not.” Ms. Anabela, in a later class, asked her kids how they might measure themselves using blocks on the rug. The teacher’s and children’s ideas of what measurement could look like expanded. The students were so excited to find out who was taller, that they asked Ms. Anabela and then the assistant teacher to be measured as well. The kids found additional ways to do measurement around the classroom to solve real problems (e.g., keeping track of the height of the water in the water table).

Just as José and Ms. Anabela found concepts that fueled their interests and promoted learning across STEM and language, we hope that other children and teachers will find the joy in STEM that encourages and motivates them to push their own learning and teaching boundaries. SciMath-DLL works with teachers to reflect on their practice, build their STEM knowledge base, and enrich their teaching using an innovative approach to professional development. We view our model as collaborative, with all of us bringing our own expertise to the table in a common goal to improve STEM learning for all young children.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.41 AMTo learn more about SciMath-DLL, please visit scimathdll.com, or email us! Dr. Alissa Lange, Principal Investigator (alange@nieer.org) Hebbah El-Moslimany, Project Coordinator (he-lmoslimany@nieer.org).

Work presented here is made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1019576 & DRL-1417040). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

–Alissa A. Lange, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


Play, Mathematics, and False Dichotomies

March 3, 2014

NIEER is hosting a blog forum on play-based learning in early childhood education, including posts from national experts in the field. Learn more about the forum here. Some worry that the push for quality education even partially driven by a desire to improve achievement may deprive children of important childhood experiences. Others worry that unstructured play without teacher engagement does little to develop children’s minds, particularly for children at high risk of academic failure. 

By Douglas H. Clements & Julie Sarama, University of Denver

Let’s stop the cycle of “abuse”—or at least confusion—that stems from false dichotomies in early education. “Play vs. academics” is arguably the main one. Of course children should play. But this does not mean they should not learn, and even play, with mathematics. Consider the following.

  1. In their free play, children naturally engage in mathematics.[i] Observations of preschoolers show that when they play, they engage in mathematical thinking at least once in almost half of each minute of play. Almost 9 out of 10 of children engage in at one or more math activities during play episodes.[ii]
  2. This mathematical play reveals intuitive knowledge of many concepts that most people think young children can’t understand, from arithmetic, to proportions, to parallelism and right angles. Unfortunately, the same children may not “understand” these concepts when they arrive in middle school. If they are not helped to mathematize (reflect on, give language to) their early “theorems in action,”[iii] the ideas do not become theorems in thought.
  3. Many adults, including early educators, believe that sequenced, intentional instruction will harm children’s play. These concerns are misplaced. Math and literacy instruction increase the quality of young children’s play. Children in classrooms with a stronger emphasis on literacy or math are more likely to engage in a higher quality of social-dramatic play.[iv] The new ideas energize high-level play activity. Thus, high-quality instruction in math and high-quality free play do not have to “compete” for time in the classroom. Doing both makes each richer. Unfortunately, many adults believe that “open-ended free play” is good and “lessons” in math are not.[v]  They don’t believe that preschoolers need specific math teaching.[vi] They don’t realize that they are depriving children not only of the joy and fascination of mathematics, but of higher-quality free play as well.
  4. If children play with mathematical objects before they’re asked to solve problems with them, they are more successful and more creative.[vii]
  5. These and other examples bring us to a fascinating type of play: mathematical play. Here we do not mean play that involves mathematics. We mean playing with mathematics itself.
    building blocks

What does this look like in action? Just after her fourth birthday, Abby was playing with three of the five identical toy train engines her father had brought home. Passing by, her mother asked, “Where are the other trains?” Although her mother was out of sight, Abby spoke to herself. “Oh, I have five. Ummm…[pointing to each engine] you are one, two three. I’m missing ‘four’ and ‘five’—two are missing! [She played with the trains for another minute.] No, I changed my mind…I have ‘one,’ ‘three,’ and ‘five.’ I’m missing ‘two’ and ‘four.’ I gotta find them two.”

When Abby first figured out how many she was missing, she was using math in her play. But when she decided that she would renumber the three engines she had with her ‘one,’ ‘three,’ and ‘five’ and the missing engines ‘two’ and ‘four’ she was playing with the notion that the assignment of numbers to a collection of objects is arbitrary. She was counting not just objects, but also words. She counted the words “four, five” to see there were two missing, and then figured that counting the renumbered counting words “two” and “four” also yielded the result of “two.” She was playing with the idea that counting words themselves could be counted.

What does all this mean regarding children’s development and learning? Free play experiences form the intuitive, implicit conceptual foundation for later mathematics. Later, children represent and elaborate these ideas—creating models of an everyday activity with mathematical objects, such as numbers and shapes; mathematical actions, such as counting or transforming shapes; and their structural relationships. This is the process of mathematization.[viii]. Recognizing the difference between foundational and mathematized experiences is necessary to avoid confusion about the type of activity in which children are engaged.[ix] They need both.

Unfortunately, adults often do not provide the mathematics experiences.[x] Our own work with teachers on curricula has been stonewalled many times by an administrator saying: “Our philosophy is that we are play-based.” Not only does this statement ignore all the evidence on play and learning,[xi] it is based on a pernicious false dichotomy that harms the children in their care. 

In summary, young children engage in significant mathematical thinking and reasoning in their play, especially if

(a) they have knowledge about the materials they are using (e.g., building blocks or other manipulatives or toys),

(b) the task is understandable and motivating, and

(c) the context is familiar and comfortable.[xii]

Math can be integrated with children’s ongoing play and activities…but this usually requires a curriculum and a knowledgeable adult who creates a supportive environment and provides challenges, suggestions, tasks, and language. Combining free play with intentional teaching, and promoting play with mathematical objects and mathematical ideas is pedagogically powerful.[xiii]


[i] van Oers, B. (1996). Are you sure? Stimulating mathematical thinking during young children’s play. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 4, 71-87.

[ii] Seo, K.-H., & Ginsburg, H. P. (2004). What is developmentally appropriate in early childhood mathematics education? In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 91-104). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[iii] Vergnaud, G. (1978). The acquisition of arithmetical concepts. In E. Cohors-Fresenborg & I. Wachsmuth (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 344-355). Osnabruck, Germany.

[iv] Aydogan, C., Plummer, C., Kang, S. J., Bilbrey, C., Farran, D. C., & Lipsey, M. W. (2005). An investigation of prekindergarten curricula: Influences on classroom characteristics and child engagement. Paper presented at the NAEYC, Washington, DC.

[v] Sarama, J. (2002). Listening to teachers: Planning for professional development. Teaching Children Mathematics, 9, 36-39.

Sarama, J., & DiBiase, A.-M. (2004). The professional development challenge in preschool mathematics. In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 415-446). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[vi] Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2009). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

[vii] Bruner, J. (1985). On teaching thinking:  An afterthought. In S. F. Chipman, J. W. Segal & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills.  Volume 2:  Research and open questions (Vol. 2, pp. 597-608). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Holton, D., Ahmed, A., Williams, H., & Hill, C. (2001). On the importance of mathematical play. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 32, 401-415.

[viii] Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Early childhood mathematics education research: Learning trajectories for young children. New York, NY: Routledge.

[ix] Kronholz, J. (2000, May 16). See Johnny jump! Hey, isn’t it math he’s really doing?, The Wall Street Journal, p. A1; A12.

[x] Tudge, J. R. H., & Doucet, F. (2004). Early mathematical experiences: Observing young Black and White children’s everyday activities. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 21-39.

[xi] Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Building blocks and cognitive building blocks: Playing to know the world mathematically. American Journal of Play, 1, 313-337.

[xii] Alexander, P. A., White, C. S., & Daugherty, M. (1997). Analogical reasoning and early mathematics learning. In L. D. English (Ed.), Mathematical reasoning: Analogies, metaphors, and images (pp. 117-147). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[xiii] Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2005a). Math play. Parent & Child, 12(4), 36-45.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2005b). Math play: How young children approach math. Early Childhood Today, 19(4), 50-57.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (in press). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Playing Sidekick to Sid the Science Kid

November 5, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating articletoday about the strategies media companies are using to attract preschoolers to their television content. It points out, among other things, that PBS Kids focuses on cognitive development.

As an adviser to Sid the Science Kid, I can attest to the truthfulness of that claim. My role in helping shape the show began with a phone call.  “We’d like you and Moisés (Román, Director of the University Village site of UCLA Early Care and Education) to write the curriculum for the project and to be our educational advisors.”  The call came from Joyce Campbell, Vice President for Children’s Programming at KCET, Los Angeles. The project to which she referred was the brainchild of KCET and The Jim Henson Company, an initial idea that grew into Sid the Science Kid, a television show that now airs nationally on PBS Kids.

When that call came, I admit to being somewhat star-struck.  This was an opportunity to partner with the people who brought Oscar, Ernie, Bert, and the gang into the lives of my young self and, some years later, my preschool children.  Why did people of this caliber want to work with me?  The answer to that question is one of the reasons why we have ended up with an educational approach that is engaging for children and adults and that has been linked to children’s excitement about science and to their learning, both anecdotally and through initial research studies.  Larger-scale research studies are underway.

The reason that Moises and I were asked to collaborate was because we are co-developers of Preschool Pathways to Science, an early childhood science curriculum.  While we both know quite a bit about children’s science learning, we bring complementary expertise. Moises is an education practitioner while I’m a research psychologist, specializing in early cognitive development.

I use the word “collaborate” very deliberately.  It is not always the case that there is a curriculum that guides the production of children’s programs.  If there is, that curriculum might not be written by someone with expertise in the content of the program (in this case science), in young children’s learning and development, or in children’s learning of the particular content domain of the show.  Even if those criteria are met, the curriculum developer might not be invited to stick around and continue to advise on the specific content of each script. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Preschool Too Early for Science? No!

August 6, 2010

For Curious Young Minds Eager to Understand Their World, This Age is Just Right

Related Reading

Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS)Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS)

Facilitating Scientific Ways of Thinking, Talking, Doing, and Understanding

Rochel Gelman
Kimberly Brenneman
Gay Macdonald
Moisés Román

Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., Inc.
Baltimore, MD
144 pages, ISBN 978-1-59857-044-1

Until recently, science has been the ignored academic stepchild of language and math. Mandated state testing as part of No Child Left Behind initially focused on language, expanded to math, and now includes science.  Concern over U.S. students’ poor science scores has brought science teaching to the forefront and a 2007 National Research Council (NRC) report, Taking Science to School, calls for broad sweeping changes in how science should be taught and organized.  States are now revising science standards to be less fragmented, fewer in number, and organized around “big ideas.”

As was the case with its academic siblings, where the preschool years became a focus for providing critical foundations for language, emergent literacy and math, educators are now asking whether science should be introduced in preschool.  Science is not “new” to preschool since many states include science as part of their “cognition and general knowledge” school readiness domain and Head Start includes “nature and science” as one of eight designated readiness domains.  However, a recent analysis of Head Start school readiness data in one state (Greenfield et al., 2009) finds that on average, children leave the Head Start program for kindergarten with science readiness scores significantly lower than scores on the other seven school readiness domains.  Follow-up focus groups with Head Start teachers pinpoint lack of time and not feeling prepared or comfortable teaching science as two possible reasons why this mandated readiness domain receives short shrift.  Is preschool, however, too early for introducing science?  A “strict” interpretation of Piaget would suggest so.  More recent research on children’s thinking, however, clearly show that despite much of young children’s thinking being tied to the perceptual here and now, young children can think and talk about many science-related topics.  The 2007 NRC report reviews this research and argues for the importance and timeliness of introducing science to young children.  This urgency has important relevance beyond its direct impact on science readiness, since part of learning science involves important domain general skills that are relevant in other areas of learning.

Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS) is a new publication that arrives on this scene, not as a rushed attempt to fill this gap, but rather as a mature program whose initial development began 20 years ago in preschool programs serving families at an Air Force base near Los Angeles.  The development of PrePS has also benefited from its use at UCLA and in New Jersey, including programs serving ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged preschool populations.  A central premise of PrePS is that young children are “scientists-in-waiting … naturally curious and actively involved in exploring the world around them” (p.2).  A goal of PrePS is to foster these predispositions in the “privileged domain” of science where children have a natural proclivity to learn, experiment and explore.  Teachers also play a critical role in PrePS guiding children in organized investigations of their everyday world, building on existing knowledge, and connecting this knowledge into deeper levels of understanding.  As one PrePS teacher reflects, “It is not about what, as a teacher, do I want the children to be doing, but what I want the children to be thinking about … Then (I ask myself), what should they be doing to better understand the concept?” (p.18). Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing Science to Pre-K: Rutgers Researchers Write the Book

February 12, 2010

“What do you predict we will find inside here?” Kimberly Brenneman asks the preschoolers gathered around her as they consider the coconut she is holding. This isn’t your everyday show and tell. Dr. Brenneman, an assistant research professor at Rutgers’ Department of Psychology, as well as NIEER, is engaging the kids in a line of scientific inquiry that illustrates a teaching approach known as Preschool Pathways to Science. Called PrePS for short, it contributed to the teaching method used in the popular PBS show Sid the Science Kid. It’s also the title of a new book just out from Brookes Publishing that serves as a guide for implementing science in preschool classrooms.

Brenneman and her co-authors are receiving national attention for Preschool Pathways to Science because it enables teachers to facilitate preschool-age children’s ability to expand their tendencies to explore, ask questions, and think in ways that follow the scientific method. Lead author Dr. Rochel Gelman is director of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science and a NIEER scientific advisory board member. Professor Gelman is known for her research on young children’s development of causal and quantitative reasoning, and on learning in informal environments. She says science involves the use of a set of processes to gain understanding about the world of objects and events. By themselves they are unlikely to evolve spontaneously in children and so it’s important to provide opportunities for kids to participate in the kinds of inquiries that contribute to the build-up of scientific knowledge and language.

Gelman and Brenneman have served as advisers to Sid the Science Kid since the show’s inception in 2008. As Brenneman illustrates in a YouTube video, PrePS encourages teachers to use words such as “explore” and “predict” as they engage kids. “Preschool-age kids are surprisingly open to scientific inquiry,” Brenneman says. And that inquiry can be timely. Last October an episode of Sid the Science Kid was devoted to the scientific basis for flu vaccinations.

The impetus for Preschool Pathways to Science began when NASA approached Gay Macdonald of UCLA with a request to help develop science-learning opportunities for a pre-K program serving families at an Air Force Base near Los Angeles. Macdonald turned to Gelman who then was on her advisory board and at UCLA to write the proposal. She and UCLA colleague Moisés Román also are co-authors of the book. Subsequent funding was provided by the National Science Foundation. Gelman elaborates on children’s scientific thinking and PrePS in this Q and A interview from Brookes Publishing.

Rx for Better Urban Schools: High-Quality Pre-K

December 11, 2009

Children’s math scores at fourth and eight grade haven’t progressed appreciably in most urban school districts over the last two years, says the most recent report from U.S. Department of Education. Only four of the 11 urban districts the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking since 2003 showed significant gains. That doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made. Urban districts, with their higher proportion of minority children and English Language Learners, represent the nation’s biggest education challenge and if we go back to 2003 when NAEP began, the urban districts have made some progress.

Nevertheless the leveling off suggested by the current report should be cause for concern because it tells us more needs to be done to move the needle toward continuing progress in these districts where the achievement gap between blacks and Hispanics and whites remains shamefully wide. We wish an urban New Jersey district were in the report because districts in cities like Newark and Camden have had the benefit of the state’s high-quality Abbott Preschool Program for a number of years. NIEER’s long-term research on the Abbott Program shows children who had two years of the program achieved gains in a variety of math measures including applied problems, calculation and math fluency through second grade.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who ran the Chicago public schools, champions high-quality preschool education as a prerequisite to success in school. That is also a key recommendation in a compelling new report titled “A New Deal for Urban Public Schools” authored by Andrew J. Rotherman and Sara Mead in the Harvard Law & Policy Review. When Secretary Duncan and I released the findings from the State of Preschool 2008 yearbook at the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in the District of Columbia earlier this year, we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a class of enthusiastic kids who shouted out each part of the story as we came to it. We need a lot more of that in urban districts as well as teachers skilled at recognizing and extending the math and science lessons in the caterpillar’s culinary exploits.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

Yet More Evidence: It’s Time to Strengthen Math, Science in Pre-K

October 23, 2009

Let’s face it: Math and science are about more than counting and recognizing shapes, even for 3- and 4-year-olds! The pre-K crowd is curious about exploring everyday math and science and comes to preschool armed with basic concepts. Young children create patterns with different colored materials, build towers with blocks and note that one tower is taller than the other. They question where puppies come from, observe that people have different color eyes and come up with explanations for the difference. These early explorations and engagement in associated thinking processes serve as foundations for learning as children continue toward more formal understandings.

Yet opportunities for children to learn math are often limited to memorizing the number words in sequence up to 20 and counting objects. Some teachers also encourage children to identify patterns or basic shapes in the environment, such as squares and circles. Similarly, opportunities to explore science concepts are provided occasionally but are rarely available on a daily basis or integrated into daily activities.

Evidence continues to mount, however, that this is not enough to help children learn the skills that will serve them best in elementary school and beyond. Most recently, it comes by way of the new report from the National Assessment of Education Progress showing that the nation’s fourth grade math scores have remained essentially unchanged since 2007.

This reinforces the need for policymakers to heed what NIEER recommends in its March 2009 brief Mathematics and Science in Preschool: Policies and Practice and to spend quality time becoming familiar with the National Research Council’s comprehensive July 2009 report Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity.

The NRC report points to the emphasis placed on literacy in recent years and research showing that pre-K teachers are less comfortable teaching math and science as factors contributing to the lag in support for math. Whatever the case, there is a growing sense that American children should be better grounded in these critical domains. One reason is the poor performance American high school students perennially turn in on math and science tests relative to their peers in most developed countries. Another is research pointing to the larger role played by early math skills in later school success than previously thought. Read the rest of this entry »

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